I had some pretty lofty goals heading into Chicago Marathon, including bettering my 3:28:41 from Berlin 2017. After my run at Oslo Marathon three weeks earlier I knew I was in a great place to set a fast time, I just had to go out and execute. Chicago was the best place to go for it, as the course is really flat and with 40,000+ runners, the aid-stations are well equipped and everything designed to run smoothly (no pun intended!).
I met up with my friend Heidi on Friday to pick up our bibs and get generally excited about the race. For both of us it was our first marathon in the USA, and there was lots to see and do, like check out the stalls, stock up on gels and later, visit a pop-up event at Nike where we got mantras ‘tattooed’ on our arms. I’m glad we did all that stuff on Friday as it left Saturday free to chill out and get an early night’s sleep before the 4:45am alarm on race day.
The race itself was scheduled to start at 7:30am, with two later waves setting off at 8am and 8:30am. However, the recommendation was to arrive two hours early, which would have been 5:30am! I decided that was a little too early even for a big race, and aimed for 6am instead. That turned out to be plenty of time to drop my bag and queue for the toilets (twice) - I’m very impressed that given the number of people running, things were moving so smoothly. I certainly know where my race entry fee went!
While dropping my bag, I bumped into Heidi again! I’d originally told her that I wanted to do my own thing that morning, but it was nice to see a friendly face for a few minutes. We had been placed in different sections: D for her and E for me, so our time together wasn’t long before we headed into the pens to await the start. The sections were the one annoying bit of the race organisation for me: although I’d qualified with a good-for-age place based on my Berlin time, I’d been placed in the 3:35-3:45 pen, considerably slower than the 3:30 I’d initially put as my estimated finish time. They had sent an email to change your corral, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it online and in the end left it. My plan instead was just to stand right at the front of the pen and hope that I’d be able to sneak in with the D-group at some point.
The gun went off, but no-one moved - that’s how far back we were! It ended up taking me ~11.5mins to cross the start-line, and that included ducking around the E-group tape and planting myself with the D runners. Mission accomplished! Unfortunately though the pacers had already dropped their signs so I couldn’t make out where the 3:30 group was. I’d just have to pace the first section on my own.
My pacing strategy for the race was to run a sub-3:20 time, starting out slowly and the building up in speed, as worked for me in Reykjavik, Berlin and Oslo (sort-of). The first 5km would be ~5:00/km pace, 5-10km at ~4:50/km, settling into ~4:45/km marathon pace from 10-30km, and then pick it up every 3km to the end. In theory, that should let me conserve my energy in the first kilometres which I could then spend in the last ones, and land at around 3:19.
From the get-go though it felt too hard for what it needed to be. The first section of the course runs through the city, and I didn’t realise how the skyscrapers were interfering with my watch GPS. I was trying to use the pace function to feel out the 5:00/km speed, but it didn’t feel as easy as I wanted for these first kilometres. Stupidly (and yes, I really should know better by now!) I was already causing myself stress, confirmed when I hit 5km in 25:20, 20secs slower than planned. I felt like I was starting on the back foot, rather than that I had stayed chill to benefit the later part of the race.
I picked up the speed at 5km and soon felt like I was running at marathon pace, too early. When I went through 10km in 49:37 (24:17 5km), my watch showed 10.5km which shows just how screwy the GPS had been. Not only did this mean that I couldn’t trust the data my watch was giving me, but I also hadn’t actually hit marathon pace, and so couldn’t trust my ‘feel’.
Essentially, without dragging out the whole story into min/km paces, I didn’t do a great job at pacing the marathon. When I hit 10km and started my ‘marathon pace’ section, I went too hard and although I knew it, didn’t let up for fear that my sense of pace was just totally out of whack. The following two 5km splits of 23:20 and 23:10 should have warned me, but nope - I just kept pushing on. I was already using mind tricks to keep myself moving along, including a new technique of 3rd-person commentary (eg. ‘Julia is looking strong, her cadence is sitting steady and her head is high’). This is not to say that it was terrible - there were times when I felt really great, and I kept surprising myself by still holding onto the pace kilometres down the road.
There was a pretty nasty head-wind from 6-8mi as we hit the most northerly point of the course. I was hoping that this would turn into a back-wind as we returned into the city, but alas that didn’t happen. It was also raining on and off, which some of my friends noticed acutely but I didn’t pay too much attention to. Instead I tried not to step into the puddles left on the ground, trip on a pothole or slip on the man-hole covers and marking paint on the road. At times it was a little bit of an obstacle course!
We came through Boystown at Mile 9 where there were lots of flags and people cheering, and soon after I spotted the 3:30 group in the distance. It took me until 17km to reach them and then another 500m or so to weave myself through, but unlike Oslo the streets were much wider and so I had an easier time of it. It was a great feeling to know they were behind me, and I could now focus on getting closer to the 3:20 group.
I passed halfway in 1:41:21, so despite all my concerns about pace in the first half, I had ended up exactly where I wanted to be. Finally I started to relax into the race and I hit marathon pace almost exactly for the 20-25km (23:46) and 25-30km (23:40) splits. However, my stupid brain saw that first one and went “but that’s so much slower than the last 5km split” and started to accept that I was slowing down. I tried to reason that it was actually where I wanted to be, but I could feel that I had used up too much effort in the 10-20km section. At an aid station at ~25km I stopped and had a little walk while I drank water, hoping that would help me pull it together a bit more.
At 30km, I was meant to start picking up the pace, but I just didn’t have it in my legs. They were feeling tired and my feet were sore, not like they could increase the pace consistently for the next 12km. I threw in a surge (another new race tactic) to try and wake them up, and then settled in to just keep grinding it out until the end as best I could. I knew sub-3:20 wasn’t on the cards anymore, but I still had a good chance at a PB.
It became a case of just hanging in as much as possible. The water stations had been awesome the whole way along: at least 20 tables long on both sides of the road with volunteers handing out first Gatorade and then water. I’ve never seen such well equipped aid stations! In the last part of the race they were coming every mile, and I forced myself to keep going until I reached the next one. At one point I stopped for a little walk outside an aid station, but did quickly get myself going again.
My pace had dropped but not as dramatically as it tends to in the last kilometres of a race - I hadn’t given up, just changed my goal. I was clicking off 5:00-5:15s, and knew that I had enough time in hand to get under 3:28. Damnit though, those last 12km took forever! Didn’t help too that my watch was now 800m out with the mile and kilometre markers: they had both along the entire length of the course.
Chicago was described to me as ‘pancake flat’, but even a pancake has some lumps and bumps. There weren’t many, but I didn’t mind the change in elevation most of the time, it meant you could use different leg muscles for a short while. The humps weren’t more than ~50m long, such as when crossing a bridge - until the very last hill which came with 400m to go. I’d been warned about this hill: normally you wouldn’t notice it, but after 26mi of running it could be felt acutely! It dragged on for 150m but I couldn’t stop and walk now!
Coming down the final stretch I realised that if I sprinted, I could make it under 3:26. I was making the ugliest grunting noises the whole way down the chute, but I made it with a smile on my face! Collapsed onto the barrier at the side, I truly felt spent. No, I hadn’t achieved my sub-3:20, but I’d still given it a good crack and run faster than I had ever before.
Most importantly though, I had honestly had fun out on the course. It wasn’t a total party like some other marathons, but I certainly wasn’t in a deep hole of misery. The crowd was great: thinner perhaps than usual thanks to the rain but still plenty of people, and not overwhelming like at London. They would scream out my name as I smiled back, and I got to wave at people on balconies and bridges looking down on the runners. I saw a few Australian runners along the course, including a woman wearing a NSW (my home state) top who I then met again in the finish tunnel. She had also run a PB and was over the moon! We hugged.
The Chicago Marathon was a great experience, and I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to make the trip out there for the race. It was my 3rd of the 6 World Marathon Majors, which means I just have Boston, Tokyo and New York to go to earn my shiny six-star medal.
My finishing time of 3:25:45 was enough to place me 763rd of over 20,000 female runners, which is pretty damn impressive too! I still have some work to do on the second half of my race, but given that 4 weeks ago I barely thought I’d be able to PB at all this year, I’m stoked to have that ticked off for 2018. We’ll see though, maybe I’ve got one more fast marathon in me this year…
In the meantime, time to relax and eat all the deep dish pizza!